Thomas M. Stevens, a prominent Washington area real estate broker, was installed as president last week of the powerful National Association of Realtors, taking the top post as the trade group faces an unprecedented array of attacks.
From the proposal to cut back mortgage interest deduction to economists' worries about the housing bubble to government officials alleging antitrust violations to bankers trying to push their way into the home brokerage business, NAR officials are feeling pretty much under siege. Real estate agents are being depicted as fat and happy, stodgy and resistant to change, particularly by other businesses that want to get a bigger share of the lucrative real estate market.
"When you're visible, people will take shots at you," Stevens said, speaking by cell phone from the group's annual convention in San Francisco, where he began his one-year term. "Real estate has been the mainstay of the economy -- the engine -- and it's just being attacked."
Stevens, a 34-year industry veteran who formerly served as president of the Northern Virginia and state associations of Realtors, is now senior vice president of NRT, a residential real estate brokerage. The Vienna broker said he was prepared to make the industry's case firmly and forcefully.
Critics of the traditional real estate industry agree that Stevens will be on the hot seat.
"He is certainly taking over at a very challenging, potentially transitional time," said Albert A. Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute. "The public focus on the workings of the real estate industry is more intense than at any time in my memory."
Wayne Abernathy, executive director of financial institutions policy at the American Bankers Association, which is lobbying Congress to be permitted to enter the real estate brokerage business, said Stevens will face "significant issues that will affect him right off the bat." Abernathy added that intense scrutiny by federal antitrust regulators generally spells "some kind of change for an industry, maybe sometimes substantial change."
Several of Stevens's longtime friends, who praise his tenacity, willingness to innovate and integrity, say he is up to the task.
"When you're big and powerful, people pick on you," said Christine Todd, chief executive of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, who has known Stevens since 1989. "But believe me, they'll have their hands full with Tom Stevens. Delightful as he is, coming across as easygoing and friendly, but he's like a bulldog. He'll take them on and he will win. . . . A bulldog will never start a fight but he will finish it."
David Charron, chief executive of MRIS, the regional multiple listing service, said he first met Stevens across a negotiating table in the 1980s when he was trying to sell the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors a new computer information system. Though he won the contract, "I almost lost my skin" in the deal, he said with a laugh.
"He's a very strong negotiator, very fair and very firm," Charron said. And those skills will be needed, he added, because "the industry is being challenged in ways it has not been challenged in years past."
The threats to the traditional real estate business are coming fast and furious.
On Tuesday, a presidential advisory panel set off a heated debate when it proposed a substantial cutback in the mortgage interest deduction and elimination of deductions for state and local taxes.
On Thursday, the U.S. Census reported that the rise in home prices was slowing, which could eventually improve housing affordability, but make real estate look like a less valuable investment.
Last week, discount and nontraditional brokers went head to head with real estate industry officials at a workshop sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department. The debate highlighted regulators' ongoing attempts to get more competition into the real estate market and to challenge the traditional 6 percent commission structure. The Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the NAR in September, alleging the industry was trying to block some discount firms from full access to sales listings.
Looming in the background of every debate are fears that the housing market, thriving for a decade, is about to level off, decline or even collapse.
Stevens sees his first task as fighting the proposal from the presidential panel on tax reform. It calls for eliminating the full mortgage deduction, which now covers up to $1.1 million in mortgage interest on first and second homes, and replacing it with a tax credit equal to 15 percent of the homeowner's mortgage interest. The panel said the current deduction favors the wealthy who use it to purchase luxury homes and who take full advantage by itemizing their deductions -- not the moderate-income people it was meant to serve, who often don't have the expertise to itemize.
Stevens will seek to mobilize the group's 1.2 million members against the proposal, and hopes also to marshal expected opposition from outraged homeowners. He has another potent piece of ammunition in the NAR's status as a generous political donor. Its political action committee gave about $3.8 million to legislators from both parties in 2004, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.
Stevens opposes "tampering" with the mortgage interest deduction, which he said would make it harder for people to buy homes. The right to be able to own a home is so important that the plan is "almost anti-American" and he was confident it will be squashed.
"Seventy percent of the American population owns a home today," Stevens said. "They won't stand for Congress to reduce the value of their equity. I don't see it moving forward."
As for the antitrust actions, he said they are being propelled by "new Internet-driven business models that don't like the old ways business has been done." He said some discount brokers don't provide much actual service to consumers and have sought support from regulators to help make their businesses more profitable.
He disputed the regulators' assertion that the trade group has restricted competition from alternative real estate businesses; on the contrary, he said, the industry is more competitive, with more agents, than ever.
"Once the Justice Department and the others understand the business they will agree with us and we will prevail," he said.
Asked about the prospect of banks moving into real estate, Stevens laughed out loud. "Ask the American public what they think about their banks. They're too impersonal. They offer very bad customer service. They're not like the old-fashioned family banks."
He said he is ready to take on each battle quickly. "I'm right here in Washington and I'm part of the establishment and I'm a 20-minute ride from the Capitol," he said.
Friends said Stevens is particularly well qualified to counter charges that the industry has been technology-phobic and unwilling to innovate. He became a real estate agent in 1972, and was working for Shannon & Luchs until it was sold during the real estate recession of the early 1990s. At the pit of the market, he bought an 11-office Coldwell Banker franchise. Many in the business thought the purchase was foolhardy at the time, but he grew it to 39 offices. The first thing he did on buying the firm was equip his agents with laptops so they could make power-point presentations to clients.
"He spent the money that was needed to make sure his offices had the latest technology, which gave him an edge over competitors who were struggling," Todd said. "When the market was down, people weren't investing, they were just holding on by their fingernails. He was positioned so that when the market came back, his people took advantage of it like a rocket."
Stevens sold his firm to NRT in 2002 for an undisclosed sum, and joined NRT himself.
Bob Butters, a Chicago lawyer who served on the NAR's legal committee, said he had observed Stevens's role as a "very capable chairman of several very important committees." He said Stevens proved himself knowledgeable about the confluence of technology and multiple listing services.
"He's got the background and experience to help NAR meet the daunting challenges that lie ahead," Butters said.